I got a call from a friend I had been working with previously in a consulting company. The year is 2009. My friend was a project manager and wanted me to join this online gaming company with roots in offline gaming. At that point I was running my own betting service but without any profit except for a VIP package, giving access to more features. My site was all about gamification and the title “best punter in Sweden”, not the money. At the most it had 100 VIPs and 10.000 punters, but five years later I shut down for lack of time. So, who was better suited than me to implement Agile in this company and become the team manager for the Sportsbook Team?!
Another friend, also an ex-colleague, was the architect in this company so I had two great references and a walk in the park to get the job if I wanted. The offer came with a six-month probation period, and I accepted with the twist that I would work the probation period as a consultant, not an employee. The manager who hired me had a reputation of being a womaniser. At his earlier company his wife emailed “all company” his affair with the secretary, and soon he was history there. Now he was the CIO here and wanted us to become Agile. He took me under his wings, but at the same time he created a distance between me and my both friends, slandering them in my presence. I was doing my job in the Sportsbook while also educating the five product owners on how to do the right thing: value creation, innovation, discovery and design thinking. So, I was very busy and didn’t notice the Management of Fear culture the manager slowly had created by trusting me and not the others. I felt like a valuable person as I was consulted in most decisions he made. My friends then started to have what I since then call “Xerox sessions” with me, trying to understand what had happened with the manager after I had joined. Xerox sessions are where people actually say what they think in one-on-ones in the small room where the copying machine is. Had I changed the culture, or why did the manager shut them out? The Xerox sessions became the only forum for complaints at this company, and often when collecting my printouts, the Xerox room was already crowded with one-on-ones. At this time, before Me-too and social media, people did not criticise managers or the company unless drinking together at the monthly After Work without the managers.
My job went on well, but my friends were not happy with their decreased status, which they linked to me as the manager’s new favourite guy. After a year though, it was about to change the other way round. The Xerox sessions were still the only times, except for the “all-hands meetings” once a month, where information was given, but it was a one-way communication and the QA session ending the meeting was silent as always, with great fear of speaking up. We hired a new operations manager and she told me during a Xerox session that the manager was hitting on her and she was unsure what to do. Obviously, she had told him no, because she later reported to HR that she had gotten her mobile phone put in a glass of water by him on a late night out with drinks. She was later to hand in her resignation. A couple of years later we met for lunch and discussed old times. She told me her story and the exit deal: Not to tell for a big sum of money. If I had known her story when I worked for this company, would I have spoken up…?
The Sportsbook, which was half my job, was lacking in speed. It was a patchwork from years of speedy deliveries and now therefore had a huge technical debt. The developers were complaining about everything, and the manager was under pressure to live up to the CEO’s expectations. So, he started picking on me, and slowly took my friends back as his favourites. I faced him with the fact that people were reluctant to communicate with him as he was sitting in his room all day like a big boss, only coming out for lunch. I recommended that he do some Gemba Walk, and when he understood that this was a real practice from Lean, he started with this, hovering around with a text on his coffee mug saying, “I am the Boss”, wearing tie, suit and back slick. He also moved his desk out to the lunchroom, forcing everyone who was grabbing a cup of coffee to speak with him, resulting in much less used coffee machine and the Xerox room full of coffee mugs!
I was always first at the office in the morning, second was our lovely office manager responsible for the reception. A couple of times the manager arrived third in the office, not knowing I was around. The conversation between them was – at that time – perhaps acceptable, but after #metoo absolutely not. I faced him with this in a heated discussion, also admitting that we were all aware of his way with women and he needed to shape up. I informed the HR manager about the incident, but nothing happened. The manager understood he needed to let me go when I stopped the work for the team in mid-August due to the heat in the office. We just shut down and went out for a long lunch which went on as a planning session, and after office hours continued on to a bar. We had complained about the heat for a long time but never got any response.
On the managers Facebook you could read:
“Frustration, frustration, frustration …. and a little joy … 🙂 Lucky that you learn from your mistakes”.
/My manager on Facebook (about me)
I knew it was me he was talking about and the next day the AC was installed, and I was called in to his open office beside the coffee machine to receive a list of things I needed to improve, or else be history:
- Your communication is perceived as cooperative
- Your syncs, your actions with management, colleagues, the organisational agenda to enable a well-functioning collaboration
- Your presentations are clear and communicate an obvious sense of responsibility
- You take responsibility for productivity and delivery
- You manage ”Sense of Urgency” in a satisfactory way
- You have a solution-oriented attitude instead of a problem-oriented
- You deliver in a satisfactory manner and ensure that your team delivers on time and according to set requirements
- You manage deviations in delivery and crises in a responsible manner
A very subjective checklist opening up for interpretation, that also came with a replacement offer as tester with a 40% salary reduction. I accepted his list and got transferred from the Sportsbook to a project about Bingo. Probably he thought I was going to resign, but I kept on criticizing him. I was in contact with HR, but she was on the manager’s side both in the office and on Facebook and I expect the CEO was informed as well. The same CEO they have today, keeping the toxic culture alive – as I experienced later. Keep on reading…
Finally, I got a great exit package, as they had no case for firing me, with an offer that was OK. But I played hard to get. The deal was three months’ salary and to quit with a secrecy clause: Not to talk about the company for three years. I added three more months to the negotiations and farewell flowers and was happy to leave. The flowers were a trick, as I knew that flowers were handed out at the monthly “all-hands meeting” with everyone present. I got a short and cold thank you and a good luck speech from the manager. At this occasion I took the opportunity to speak up – for the first time in my work life. I don’t remember what I said, but people have later reminded me of this milestone, when someone at last said out loud what everyone thought – that the manager was just a dirtbag.
In the original agreement, which I didn’t sign at first, there was this clause:
“Ove undertakes not to disclose to third parties during his employment, and for a period of three years thereafter, or for his own part, directly or indirectly use confidential information concerning the company, its customers or other activities.”
But when you get a financially great exit agreement it is, sadly to say, easy to betray your true values. At the end I accepted the agreement, including the quoted clause, with some modifications, making it more financially beneficial. I am not proud of it, but when I was younger money was more important than pride. Today I will hang in until they throw me out. The manager stayed around four more years and fed the toxic culture, still prevailing today. I moved on to become the Agile Coach I am now; doubting, speaking up and sleeping well. My friends, who didn’t attend my farewell session, nor sent me an email or text, worked for ten more years at this company. I recently saw one of them in a shopping mall. I stared at him, but he didn’t look back.
Fast forward to 2020. I got an email from a consultant broker. As the most experienced Agile coach in Sweden, I don’t need a broker as my network, friends and reputation travel faster, so I just replied with an offensive quotation they couldn’t match. But this time it was from the toxic company, and of course my curiosity took over. I was already collaborating with another client, so I accepted a part time assignment for coaching their infrastructure department. The company had grown ten times since my last visit, from six to 50 teams, but the Sportsbook was the same. The same technical debt and features, Innovation had stagnated. Only three people were still around from before and one was the CEO. But the culture was not the same…it was worse!
I then heard about Black Monday that was executed a couple of years ago in this company, where many people got fired on short notice and/or left the same day. I saw the new management acting like Russian news broadcasters and few questions were asked in the public sessions. The Xerox sessions were non-existing due to the Corona pandemic, so instead external chat groups popped up to discuss the problems. During the following six months here, I held workshops on Agile topics as Corona was affecting the traditional coaching. One of the sessions was of course Psychological Safety. One part of the session was making the Psychological Safety assessment which scored all time low, just as I had expected. One part of the Psychological Safety session format was to promote exposure of our own weakness and – as a case – tell each other our worst work-related mistake. So, I revealed my worst mistake and told my story, which comes later in this book. Of course, I got fired a second time from the same company when I challenged the management with their Psychological Safety status! This time I did not get any flowers – and I did not speak up. All was already said.
Summing up: This company is the most toxic company I have ever worked for, and I believe the CEO is solely responsible for this culture as HR is completely passive. I am not proud of how I managed the situation in hindsight. I should have spoken up when my manager abused people, but I and others didn’t. At the end I told the manager to his face, but not until my farewell speech in public.
This is a part of the book Psychological UNsafety from the trenches you can order or read more about here.